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Naturally-leavened, single origin, micro… Reading labels, menus, and tap-room chalkboards has become complicated. Where we once had the familiar “sweet” corn or “vine-ripened” tomatoes, we now see “Orleans Process” vinegar and “bean-to-bar” chocolate, which occupy a very different realm: the one of “artisanal” foods and drinks.
It’s a tricky category: Because these words send such strong signals about tradition, they're also vulnerable to misuse.
What does “artisanal” itself even mean? Does it signal craft or marketing smarts, heritage of hype? At its worst it can seem nothing more than folksy packaging (letterpress font required) on industrially-produced foods. At its best though, the movement is uplifting, reminding us there’s a role for the skilled—well, artisan—hand in the creation of flavor. Still, remarkably few of the words have precise definitions, and it's ultimately left up to each one of us to judge the sincerity behind the product.
Those words and phrases that do have established definitions are dictated by groups that want to maintain delineated meaning in a realm where the lyrical impulse can sometimes take over. The Boulder-based Brewers Association has established six million barrels as the cut-off production level after which one is no longer a “craft” brewer. Likewise, the American Cheese Society requires cheese that is labeled “farmstead” to use only milk from the farm where the cheese is made.
After that it’s more about suggesting than defining, which means that, especially for terms that seem overused, it’s the vividness of a flavor—rather than any sort of language—that establishes the meaning more powerfully. With no legal clarity, you’ll have to try the product and judge for yourself. "Small batch" is a good example. Where haven’t we seen it? We sometimes might wonder how something supposedly made in small amounts can manage to be on the weekly flyer of our local supermarket chain.
But, invariably for me, just when I’m ready to cast “small batch” off as a buzzword, I’m reminded of what it actually denotes. That’s what happened when I tasted the garlicky snap of the pickles fermented in wood barrels sold by Britt’s Pickles in Seattle’s Pike Place Market recently. And, come to think of it, when I had small batch bitters by barkeep Christiaan Rollich at Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles; I detected a hint of cassia bark that opened up the warm bourbon notes in a Manhattan and made me rediscover a classic cocktail.
Much of the movement’s power lies in that sense of rediscovery. The history of American eating (and drinking) is full of vivid flavors, but by the 1960s many of those characteristics—and the local customs behind them—had been reduced to blandness by an industrialized form of production that was always ready to sacrifice quality for large-scale production. That’s when food artisans started to appear. Instructed by a network that communicated with self-addressed stamped envelopes and armed with basic equipment for baking, brewing, and cheesemaking, they sought to find—in the traditions of the past—a way to eat better in the present.
There’s still a legacy of those days—when newbie artisans defined themselves against the nasty ways of big food—in the focus on scale of production. It can sometimes seem too much. Those for whom the “micro” brewery isn’t tiny enough can fill their growlers at a “nano” brewery. We get it: They’re not the brewery with the Clydesdales. While “nano” has no artisanal-related definition (an internet search would seem to put “a business model easy to parody” in the running), all the word play is a wish to single out a venture where the craft level is high or, in the case of coffee or chocolate, the raw material unique.
“Single origin” coffee, for example, does originate on a mountain farm where the crop is recognized for qualities such as robustness, pleasing acidity, or even a natural sweetness that the best coffee beans retain after being roasted and brewed. “Single barrel” bourbon means that the whiskey tasted in the rickhouse (where barrels are stacked as they mature) was deemed unique enough to not blend with others. “Bean-to-bar” chocolate makers are safeguarding the individuality of their raw material when they roast cacao beans they take directly from burlap bags, then winnow the chaff, mill the nibs, and fashion and temper the chocolate. The finishing sprinkle of sea salt on each bar of Brooklyn’s Cacao Prieto, wrapped in heavy bond paper with a cool design, underscores the original high quality of the beans.
There’s something about all those steps that represents the patient craft behind the variety of foods and drinks that are being rediscovered by the artisanal movement. What industrialized food did was prioritize speed. What artisans are doing is putting flavor first. That may be the minutes it takes to fix a customer a “pour over” coffee, the boiling water slowly dripping through the coffee sleeve on the counter before you, or the twenty-four hours “naturally-leavened” bread, one whose initial rise is boosted by a portion of yesterday’s dough, takes to get from mixing bowl to oven. It requires many months of aging Wisconsin’s best Swiss-style cheeses (and continuously turning the wheels and brushing each one with salt) for the all-important microbially-complex rind to develop.
Great vinegars, like those developed using the “Orleans Process,” can involve up to two years. The oak barrels they get from wineries are stacked, each one about two-thirds full of good wine and a microbial “mother” that will slowly transform the alcohol into a liquid that’s both wonderfully mellow and boldly sharp. The technique was first developed in Orleans, the French city on the banks of the Loire, but the quality of the vinegar has made it become more and more popular here. It’s not a fancy ingredient at all, but one you can use any day to elevate a marinade, create a powerful base for a sauce when deglazing a hot pan, or splash on a salad in a dressing that reveals all the herbal subtleties of your fresh green mix. Like great bacon, crusty bread or a unique coffee in a diner mug, its low-key way represents what’s most powerful about the artisanal movement.
The flavors are direct and true. Sometimes deciphering the label is the only complicated part.
Do you have an "artisan" food product you really love? Tell us about in the comments below!